Nobody to Watch Over Me (誰も守ってくれない, Ryoichi Kimizuka, 2009)

Nobody to Watch Over MeWhen a crime has been committed, it’s important to remember that there may be secondary victims whose lives will be destroyed even if they themselves had no direct involvement in the case itself. This is even more true in the tragic case that person who is responsible is themselves a child with parents and siblings still intent on looking forward to a life that their son or daughter will now never lead. This isn’t to place them on the same level as bereaved relatives, but simply to point out the killer’s family have also lost a child who they have every right to grieve for, though their grief will also be tinged with guilt and shame.

Nobody to Watch Over Me (誰も守ってくれない, Dare mo Mamotte Kurenai) takes the example of one particular case in which an 18 year old boy has brutally stabbed two little girls in a park and then returned home as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. After the boy is arrested, his family is caught up in a firestorm of police and press interest, barely able pause and come to terms with the surreal events that are taking place. No sooner has their son been dragged off in handcuffs than a troupe from the family court arrives with pre-printed documents which will arrange for a divorce and remarriage between the parents so that they can revert to the wife’s maiden name in an attempt to avoid the stigma of being related to a child killer. After being bamboozled into signing a number of papers with barely any explanation the family is then split up for questioning and taken to separate locations to try and throw off the press.

Grizzled detective Katsuura (Koichi Sato) is charged with looking after the murderer’s younger sister, Saori (Mirai Shida) – a 15 year old high school student. Katsuura is enduring some familial conflict of his own and was due to be taking a family holiday to try and work things out, so he’s a little distracted and put out about needing to shield this quite uncooperative teenager from the baying masses. He’s also suffering a degree of PTSD from a traumatic incident some years previously in which a case he was involved in went horribly wrong resulting in the death of a small boy. Understandably, Saori is in a state of shock, left alone with strangers to try and cope with this extremely stressful situation and unwilling to betray her brother by submitting to the police’s constant demands for information.

The police themselves aren’t always the benign and and comforting presence one might hope for on such an occasion as Katsuura’s superior has one eye on a possible promotion if he can exploit this high profile case for all its worth and is intent on pressing this innocent teenage girl as if she were some kind of war criminal. The family are treated with a degree of suspicion and contempt, as if they were directly or indirectly complicit in the violence created by their son or brother.

In actuality, there may be a grain of truth in this as the film also begins to offer some social critique of the modern family and the pressures placed on young people in the contemporary world. When questioned about their son, the mother remains more or less silent but the father angrily replies that he raised his son “strictly”. The family had high expectations and didn’t take academic failure lightly. From middle school onwards, they kept their son at home to study allowing him little outlet for anything else and, it seems, he was sometimes physically disciplined for a lack of progress.

Katsuura’s family is under threat too, perhaps placed under pressure following Katsuura’s personal disintegration over having been prevented in his attempts to save the life of the small boy some years previously or just from the constant insecurities involved being the family of a policeman whose working schedule is necessarily unpredictable. Though originally becoming fed up with Saori’s lack of cooperation, Katsuura eventually develops a protective relationship with her perhaps because she reminds him of his own teenage daughter. Given that the police are to some degree her enemy as they are the ones that have taken away her brother and separated her from her parents, it’s not surprising that she doesn’t immediately warm to Katsuura but after being betrayed by someone she believed was a true ally, she finally understands that he is firmly on her side and trying to protect her from a very real series of threats.

The modern world is shown up for all of its voyeuristic obsession with the horrifying and the taboo. The family are swarmed by press but it’s the internet that becomes the major aggressor as it publishes not only the boy’s real name, but even his parents’ address and the addresses of other people involved with the case. Self proclaimed social justice crusaders react like parasites glued to bulletin boards trading information on notorious crimes for a kind of internet fame, not caring about the facts of the case or that there are real people involved here who are already grieving. Taking the “I blame the parents” mentality to its extreme, even more distant members of the killer’s family are expected to trot out an apology for the cameras even though it’s really nothing to do with them and isn’t going to do anyone any good anyway.

Kimizuka shoots the first part of the action with a breathless intensity, mimicking hand held, on the ground news reporting to convey just how frightening and disorientating this must be for anyone unlucky enough to be caught up in a media storm. The use of choral music and occasional melodramatic touches near the end perhaps undermine the film’s emotional power which never quite coalesces in the way it seems to want to. However, Nobody to Watch Over Me is a fascinating and rich exploration of the public’s obsession with true crime stories coupled with an extreme tendency towards victim blaming and the need to hold to account those close to the perpetrator of a crime even if they had little to do with it themselves. Frightening yet hopeful in equal measure, Nobody to Watch Over Me offers scant comfort but does at least begin to ask the question.


The region 3 Hong Kong DVD release of Nobody to Watch Over Me includes English subtitles.

English subtitled teaser trailer:

Hana-bi (はなび, AKA Fireworks, Takeshi Kitano, 1997)

Original quad poster from UK theatrical release (some of these cinemas no longer exist. Also, sponsored by Yo! Sushi.)

Review of Takeshi Kitano’s Hana-bi (はなび) first published by UK Anime Network.


Takeshi Kitano might still be best known for his ultra violent gangster pics, but after making it into the international arthouse repertoire with Sonatine back in the early ‘90s it was Hana-bi which put him on the map as one of Japan’s most prominent exports. Kitano plays the lead in the film once more adopting his cooler than cool persona with occasional flashes of violence only this time on the side of the law (to begin with, anyway).

Told in an initially confusing, flashback structure, Hana-bi follows middle aged policeman Nishi who experiences several life changing events in a short space of time. At the beginning of the film he’s let off a stakeout and told to go visit his wife who’s ill in hospital. Unfortunately, as we later find out, this will prove to be a poor decision as pretty much everything goes wrong – Nishi’s partner, Horibe, is shot and ends up paralysed, one of his other men is wounded and tragically another killed right in front of Nishi’s eyes. After being told that nothing more can be done for his wife and it’s better that she just come home from the hospital, Nishi quits the police force, gets involved with the yakuza and robs a bank before taking off with his wife for one last holiday.

Actually, the film skips over its climactic event until quite a way into its running time. Kitano unsettles us right away by giving us very little explanation for what we’re seeing. He shows us Nishi meeting with the widow of a man we didn’t even know was dead yet (not that he really told us who she was anyway). We’re left to piece events together like a detective listening to a confused witness testimony only our information is primarily visual – there isn’t even a lot of dialogue to guide us on our way. This refreshing technique is one the generally laconic Kitano seems to favour and greatly adds to Hana-bi’s low-key style.

Kitano never says too much in his movies anyway, but this time his is wife also near silent uttering the grand total of two words in the entire film and both of those come in the final scene. We know that she has a terminal illness (though it isn’t clear that she knows this, or how much she understands). Nishi and his wife also apparently lost their young daughter not long ago and it’s implied that perhaps she just hasn’t been fully present ever since. Her lack of speech, shyness and constant game playing coupled with her outwardly cheerful (if sometimes vacant) demeanour give her a childlike quality but the two words she does offer at the film’s conclusion imply (at least in that moment) that she knows what’s going on and understands what is about to happen.

Nishi and his wife have an extremely close relationship, they rarely need to speak to each other. However, Nishi’s partner, Horibe, discovers that his marriage was not as secure as he assumed as his wife and daughter walk out on him after his accident. In an effort to give him something to strive for, Nishi sends him some painting supplies and henceforth Horibe’s artwork (actually designed by Kitano himself) becomes a prominent motif in the film. The first series takes animals and then people and paints them with the heads of flowers but this then gives way to more complicated pointillist scenes. Many of Horibe’s works feature a repeated motif of a man, woman and child (neatly echoed in the films closing scenes) seemingly enjoying a happy family occasion. Perhaps this is an odd sort of masochism on Horibe’s part, lamenting everything he’s lost since his accident but the two figures could also represent the Nishis reunited with their lost daughter.

Shot in Kitano’s trademark blues, Hana-bi is a melancholy tale. Flowers and fire, Kitano shows us both extreme tenderness and fits of violence as he’s both the loving husband, grieving father, nurturing best friend and hardline cop who bears personal responsibility for the loss of his own. This path only leads in one direction and we’ve figured out where we’re headed long before nearing the end of our journey. Nevertheless, Hana-bi is a rich, poetic experience which continues to prove deeply moving and endlessly fascinating.


Hana-bi is re-released in the UK today on blu-ray courtesy of Third Window Films who will also be releasing Dolls and Kikujiro in the near future.

 

Veteran (베테랑, Ryoo Seung-wan, 2015)

1439210220_베테랑1Review of Ryoo Seung-wan’s Veteran (베테랑) – first published on UK Anime Network.


One of the top Korean box office hits of 2015, Ryoo Seung-wan’s Veteran is a glorious throw back to the uncomplicated days of ‘80s buddy cop crime comedy thrillers. A little less than subtle in its social commentary, Veteran nevertheless takes aim at corrupt corporate culture and the second generation rich kids who inherit daddy’s company but are filled with an apathetic, bored arrogance that is mostly their own.

Seo Do-cheol (Hwang Jung-min) is, as one other officer puts it, the kind of police officer who joined the force just to beat people up. He loves to fight and isn’t afraid of initiating a little “resisting arrest” action just to make things run a little more smoothly. However, when he strikes up a friendship with a put upon truck driver and his cute as a button son only to miss a crucial telephone call that eventually lands said truck driver in the hospital, Do-cheol’s sense of social justice is inflamed. After trying to join a trade union, Bae, the truck driver, is unceremoniously let go from his company. On taking his complaint directly to the head of Sin Jin Trading, play boy rich kid Tae-oh, Bae is subjected to the most cruel and humiliating “interview” of his life before apparently attempting to commit suicide after having realised the utter hopelessness of his situation. Incensed on his new friend’s behalf, Do-cheol is determined to take down these arrogant corporatists what ever the costs may be!

Veteran makes no secret of its retro roots. It even opens with a joyously fun sequence set to Blondie’s 1979 disco hit, Heart of Glass. Like those classic ‘80s movies, Veteran manages to mix in a background level of mischievous comedy which adds to the overall feeling of effortless cool that fills the film even when things look as if they might be about to take a darker turn. The action sequences are each exquisitely choreographed and filled with sight gags as the fight crazy Do-cheol turns just about any random object that appears to be close to hand into an improbable weapon.

Make no mistake about it either, this is a fight heavy film. Though Veteran has a very masculine feeling, it is to some degree evened out by the supreme Miss Bong whose high class high kicks can take out even the toughest opponents and seem to have most of her teammates looking on in awe, and the withering gaze of Do-cheol’s put upon wife who seems determined to remind him that he’s not some delinquent punk anymore but a respectable police officer with a wife and child who could benefit from a little more consideration.

Indeed, Tae-oh and his henchmen aren’t above going after policemen’s wives in an effort to get them to back off. Though this initial overture begins with an attempt at straightforward bribery (brilliantly dealt with by  Mrs. Seo who proves more than a match more the arrogant lackeys), there is a hint of future violence if the situation is not resolved. Tae-oh is a spoiled, psychopathic rich kid who lacks any kind of empathy for any other living thing and actively lives to inflict pain on others in order to breathe his own superiority. Probably he’s got issues galore following in his successful father’s footsteps and essentially having not much else to do but here he’s just an evil bastard who delights in torturing poor folk and thinks he can do whatever he likes just because he has money (and as far as the film would have it he is not wrong in that assumption).

He also loves to fight and finally meets his match in the long form finale sequence in which everything is decided in a no holds barred fist fight between maverick cop and good guy Do-cheol and irredeemable but good looking villain Tae-oh. Veteran never scores any points for subtlety and if it has any drawbacks it’s that its characterisations tend to be on the large side but what it does offer is good, old fashioned (in a good way) action comedy that has you cheering for its team of bumbling yet surprisingly decent cops from the get go. Luckily it seems Veteran already has a couple of sequels in the pipeline and if they’re anywhere near as enjoyable as the first film another new classic franchise may have just been born.


Reviewed at the first London East Asia Film Festival and the London Korean Film Festival.

The World of Kanako (渇き, Tetsuya Nakashima, 2014)

WorldOfKanako-PAnother LFF review up at UK Anime Network – The World of Kanako. I was also lucky enough to interview the director, Tatsuya Nakashima, who was actually very nice and quite chatty in contrast to some of the other interviews I’d read with him! (The consequence being I had way too many questions so it’s sort of a front loaded interview, oh well.) Interview’s already transcribed and in the system so hopefully live soon.


Tetsuya Nakashima is probably best known for his 2010 film, Confessions, which saw a school teacher’s extremely convoluted bid to avenge the death of her daughter at the hands of her students spill out to reveal a whole host of other ‘confessions’ of varying natures from its out of control teenage cast. Though Confessions had its fair share of violence and blood, this is nothing compared to the hellish darkness which fills The World of Kanako. Corrupt cops, teenage femme fatales, wife beaters, child traffickers, pimps and drug dealers make up the cast of this grim exposé of just how wrong you can be about the people most close to you. Those of you with a weak disposition had better step off here – this journey is not for the faint of heart.

Disgraced former policeman Fujishima has a whole host of problems in his life, alcoholism and possible schizophrenia being but two of them. Suddenly he gets a call from his estranged wife who’s out of her mind with worry because their teenage daughter, Kanako, has not been home in a few days. On searching her room in true detective style, he finds a stash of illegal drugs hidden in her school pencil case. This alarming discovery sends Fujishima down an increasingly dark alley way that leads only to the heartbreaking realisation that the kind and beautiful straight A student he believed his daughter to be was no more than a figment of his own imagination.

Fujishima is not a nice guy. There’s not really any other way to put it – he’s an arsehole. A self aggrandising drunk who lives inside a dream where he’s a hero fighting for justice with a loving wife and adorable little daughter waiting for him in their beautiful home. Except that his wife wants nothing to do with him, he hasn’t seen his daughter in a very long time and he’s been kicked off the force and currently works in security. Often drunk and on medication he’s never quite in the moment and therefore neither are we – thrown between flashbacks and unreliable mental images, we begin to float just as freely as Fujishima. It’s testimony to the abilities of the great Koji Yakusho that somehow we still feel a degree of sympathy and a desire to understand Fujishima’s complex psychology despite his deep seated rage which is directed both at himself and others. Deluded beyond belief, his quest to find his daughter is really a thinly veiled attempt to save himself by resurrecting the idealised image he had of her as the one decent thing he’d been able to  build in his life.

His daughter turns out to be daddy’s little girl after all, just not in the way Fujishima originally thought. She may be beautiful and clever, but never kind and her attentions are always part of some grander plan. Like the femme fatales of old and despite her young age, Kanako knows how to get what she wants but what she wants is to cause other people pain. She too lives in a dream, or perhaps a nightmare, as she says at one point falling like Alice in Wonderland through a seemingly endless black hole. There aren’t any ‘decent’ people in this world, everyone is fighting to maintain some kind of delusional self image that will allow them to believe in their own goodness – often through projected images of an idealised family.

Coupled with this intensely dark world, the film wears its influences on its sleeve including ‘60s quirky cool action films, as evidenced by its psychedelic title sequence, and 50s Noir B-movies with their down at heel antiheroes who are often lost in worlds far darker than their imaginings. It’s also true the film is extraordinarily violent in way you don’t generally see in modern times but that doesn’t mean that Nakashima’s gift for intensely beautiful set pieces is entirely absent. The teenager’s world is full of extreme bubblegum pop and purikura garishness coupled with introspective retro tunes and animated sequences which contrast heavily with the adults’ universe of bespoke kitchens and ordered realities.

Ironically, Fujishima turns out to be quite a good detective, though the clues don’t lead him to the answers he really wanted to find. Where they do lead him is ever onward down a dark and dingy rabbit hole with no end in sight. It’s a gloriously bleak tale, but told with an ironic, detached eye that seems to be finding all of this cosmic lack of clarity ever so slightly amusing. The World of Kanako almost redefines the word ‘extreme’ but it does it with so much style that even the most jaded of viewers couldn’t help raising a wry, if slightly depressed, smile.


 

 

Wings of the Kirin 麒麟の翼

Wings_of_the_Kirin-002Based on the novel by Keigo Higashino (The Devotion of Suspect X), Wings of the Kirin is the latest big screen outing for Higashino’s famous detective Kaga. Previously played on TV by Hiroshi Abe who reprises his role as the much loved sleuth here, this latest instalment sees Kaga’s particular expertise put to use in the case of a salary man who appears to have staggered some distance from the subway tunnel where he was stabbed only to die right under the famous Kirin statue on Nihonbashi Bridge. Around the same time, a younger man calls his girlfriend to tell her he’s in ‘big trouble’ before being chased out into the road by police, whereupon he’s suddenly mown down by an oncoming truck. As this man had the salaryman’s briefcase the case seems open and shut – a mugging gone tragically wrong leading to the death of both perpetrator and victim. Kaga though feels differently and as always, the case is not quite as straightforward as the authorities would like to believe.

As with many of Higashino’s stories, the mystery itself is almost a macguffin as Higashino is more interested in investigating human behaviour and psychology with half an eye on traditional morality. Wings of the Kirin is no different in this respect as it has a heavy interest in the relationship between fathers and sons and the importance of taking personal responsibility for your own transgressions. However, that isn’t to downplay the mystery element as Higashino once again proves himself a master at wrong footing the audience. Many viewers may feel they have a pretty solid idea of who did it and why fairly early on the film only for it takes off in an entirely different direction in the final third. That said, although it is heavily pushing your intuition in one direction, there are perhaps an over abundance of subplots including illegal work practices and unfeeling employers, the difficulties faced by young people coming out of the foster system, complicated teenage friendships and misunderstandings brought about by people’s own sense of guilt. Consequently the film does run quite long as it manages to pack in just about as many wrong turns and red herrings as possible, however it largely earns its right to run as each of the characters and sub-plots manages to be compelling in its own right.

Though Wings of the Kirin is technically the big screen spin off of the Detective Kaga TV drama, no previous knowledge of Kaga and co is strictly necessary though familiarity with some of the peripheral characters may help. Hiroshi Abe excels once again as the slightly distant if all seeing detective who alone is capable to putting all the pieces together in the right order. Perhaps due to its TV roots, the film has a rather strange and quirky soundtrack which is frequently at odds with the serious nature of the drama yet it never quite tips over into being distracting enough to derail the film. Occasionally it does feel like more like a big budget TV special than a major feature but again perhaps that’s in keeping with the previous instalments in the series. Like all good mysteries, the solution involves a great deal of improbable coincidences yet watching Kaga shuffling them all into place to reveal the overall solution is quite masterful.

However, Higashino’s moralising does take over at times and there was at least one instance where it seemed Kaga had gone too far, or at least the actions of one character did seem reasonable. After all, if you can ‘save’ one person when there’s nothing to be done for another, is it really so wrong to try and help the people who are left behind? The actions in that case did seem altruistic, not born of any desire to ‘cover-up’ wrong doing but only to try and prevent more lives being ruined. Yes, Kaga’s assertion that you’ve effectively taught someone that it’s OK not to admit you’ve done wrong or that it’s OK to let others take the blame for your own mistakes is obviously true, but the consequences here are perhaps too extreme and dramatically neat to bear it out. Occasionally the film does feel preachy and its message is anything but subtle, however, thankfully it never manages to disrupt the pleasure of its finely constructed mystery. A little bit long and necessarily meandering, The Wings of the Kirin is another impressive crime thriller from the pen of Higashino that manages to entertain with a finely crafted central narrative but is also unexpectedly moving in its curiously small scale climax.